Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Role of Time Frame in the Assessment of Family Functioning

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Role of Time Frame in the Assessment of Family Functioning

Article excerpt

Inspection of the family research literature reveals that in the vast majority of studies, self-report procedures have been the major vehicle by which relevant phenomena are defined and investigated (Jacob, 1987). As noted elsewhere, such procedures are not only convenient and relatively inexpensive but also allow for the possibility of large-sample, normative data to which individual study findings can be related (Jacob & Tennenbaum, 1988). Most importantly, however, self-report procedures can capture members' cognitions and attributions about relationships and relationship-relevant events--data that are increasingly viewed as essential to the goals of understanding and predicting family processes and outcomes (Bradbury & Fincham, 1990; Robinson & Jacobson, 1987). On the other hand, such methods are ultimately based upon an individual's perceptions of self and other--perceptions that can be inaccurate, biased, and at times serious distortions of what other observers might conclude about the individual and relationships in question. One likely contributor to such undesirable outcomes concerns the time frame the investigator imposes on the questionnaire material.

Review of the family assessment literature (Grotevant & Carlson, 1989; Jacob & Tennenbaum, 1988) indicates that test instructions most often request the individual to describe his/her family "in general" or simply omit any guidelines as to time frame, an omission which in effect implies that the individual should describe relationships "in general" as they might be experienced over relatively extended periods of time. That an instrument's stated time frame can importantly influence family self-report data draws support from several sources. Most importantly, considerable research from cognitive psychology suggests that an individual's information-processing abilities are not only limited but also likely to impair his/her ability to remember accurately events from the past. As noted by Babor, Brown, and Del Boca (1990), "retrieval has consistently been found to relate to the recency and saliency of past events....[and errors in memory can result from]...memory decay (forgetting), response distortion (e.g., repression), and telescoping (i.e., events remembered as occurring more recently)" (p. 14). Retrospective data collections that cover long periods of time seem particularly vulnerable to serious distortions (Yarrow, Campbell, & Burton, 1970). In some cases, such responses may underestimate the frequency or intensity of events; in other cases, single, particularly salient experiences may dominate one's descriptions of an entire time period. Whatever the direction of distortion, resultant data are likely to exhibit significant inaccuracies, and, in turn, associations involving such variables may be vulnerable to significant interpretive ambiguities.

In the present study, a systematic comparison was made of how and to what degree time frames might influence the collected data. In one administration, the respondent was instructed to describe his/her family "in general," and in a second administration (with the same instruments) to describe his/her family "during the past week." Three whole-family assessment procedures--characterized by different theoretical underpinnings, measured variables, and test construction strategies--were administered to a large community sample of intact families. Relevant data were obtained from fathers, mothers, and children in order to determine if varying time frames operated differently as a function of family role.



The sample was obtained as part of a larger study concerned with the development and evaluation of family assessment methods. (See author's note.) The sample consisted of primarily white (90%), first-time married (82%), middle-class families composed of a mother, father, and at least one adolescent (57% female) between the ages of 12 and 18 years (M = 1 14. …

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